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Restaurant firm cooks up rapid growth phase

A local corporate staple — behind a right time, right place leader — aims to maintain its internal entrepreneurial culture.

  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 6:00 a.m. September 27, 2019
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
Mark Wemple. Chris Tomasso was named president of Manatee County-based First Watch in 2015. He added CEO to his duties in 2018.
Mark Wemple. Chris Tomasso was named president of Manatee County-based First Watch in 2015. He added CEO to his duties in 2018.
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The popular Sarasota restaurant Der Dutchman is known for its down-home Amish cooking, tasty pies and cavernous size.

It’s also the spot where Chris Tomasso, president and CEO of a $354 million restaurant company, discovered one of his core leadership principles. Tomasso was a dishwasher at Der Dutchman in high school in the mid-1980s. He would work his shift and then do a second, mini-shift at closing time, vacuuming and sweeping floors.

Tomasso did the floors, he recalls, because many of the servers didn’t want to do the work and said the sections were too big. They instead paid Tomasso, then a Sarasota High School sophomore, $10 to vacuum their section.

Beyond extra cash, it was the genesis of "and then some." That’s Tomasso’s belief that to be truly excellent in your work, you need to do your job well and then find a way to do a bit more. “Don’t just do what’s expected of you,” says Tomasso, 49, the son of a car salesman and homemaker, who would go on to become the first person in his family to go to college. “Go further. Do something that stands out.”

The company Tomasso leads, Manatee County-based breakfast, brunch and lunch chain First Watch, is having its own "and then some" moment. Amid a growth surge in locations and an aggressive expansion plan, the company recently announced a new headquarters project, remaining in east Manatee County, near the University Parkway exit of Interstate 75. It plans to open some 50 locations in 2019 and at least that many in 2020, which would put the total count, in all its brands, to more than 450 stores — up more than 50% from 2016. 

A two-story 39,000-square-foot complex near its currently facility, the new headquarters will include collaborative work spaces, private offices and conference rooms, a workout center with locker rooms, a test kitchen for the chain's culinary team and classroom facilities for the company’s management center named F.A.R.M, for First Watch Academy of Restaurant Management.

The facility, developed by Benderson Development, is expected to be completed by late 2020. Company officials say the expansion and project will lead to at least 85 new jobs, with an expected average annual salary of $82,000. Manatee County commissioners, in return for the jobs, approved a performance-based package of incentives and impact fees for First Watch worth about $390,000.

The jovial Tomasso, who began his career in marketing and has worked for Hard Rock Café and Cracker Barrel, among other entities, is the right leader at the right time for First Watch, say many who know him. He joined First Watch as chief marketing officer in 2006, when it had 60 locations in nine states. He has since worked closely with then-CEO Ken Pendery, now executive chairman, as the company blossomed into one of the largest and most respected brands in its niche. It now has some 390 locations in 31 states, under the original First Watch brand and others it acquired, The Egg & I and Sun & Fork. Tomasso was named president of the company — Boston private equity firm Advent International is the majority owner — in 2015 and CEO in 2018.

'Don’t just do what’s expected of you. Go further. Do something that stands out.’ Chris Tomasso, First Watch

“He invests a lot to energize his team and leads by example,” says Venice-based impact resistant window manufacturer PGT Innovations President and CEO Jeff Jackson, a close friend of Tomasso’s since they met in 2006. “He also has a passion for the First Watch brand. He really knows what the look and feel of a First Watch should be.”

Pendery met Tomasso a few years before the younger executive landed at First Watch: Tomasso, then in Nashville, reached out to Pendery on a cold call. He said he grew up in town, admired the brand and would love to meet up someday and learn more about First Watch. "We met up for coffee and soon struck up a friendship," Pendery says. A short while later, when Tomasso was looking for a new opportunity, Pendery jumped on it. "Chris is a very, very, very engaging guy," Pendery says about getting to know the person who would eventually become CEO of First Watch. 

Choose carefully

Tomasso counts Pendery as one of his career mentors, a leader who taught him the art of knowing when to gather information and when to make a decision. “I can be impulsive,” Tomasso says. “He taught me how to settle down and be patient.”

Patience marked the early years of First Watch. The first location opened in California in 1983, followed by a second in 1984. Pendery helped open the second location, joining Founder John Sullivan; the pair were colleagues at the Le Peep breakfast chain in Colorado. “Our goals back then were simple: Create a unique breakfast, brunch and lunch offering while providing for our families, play a little golf in the afternoons, and create opportunities in our community,” Pendery says in a statement announcing Tomasso’s promotion to CEO.

The company grew slow and steady and chose markets carefully, based on long-term demographic projections and median incomes. It didn’t sign its first franchise agreement until 2008, preferring to control the quality with corporate owned stores.

The key to the growth, Pendery and Tomasso say, is to grow based on people — particularly managers and general managers, who have earned their own store and step up in the company. “One of the bedrock principles is we believe the company’s growth has to create opportunities for our people,” Tomasso says.

Along the way, First Watch — with a menu that combines traditional favorites (omelets and pancakes) with unique, modern items (avocado toast and quinoa power bowls) — has won a slew of awards. Both for food, in best breakfasts and best brunches, and the hospitality industry.

In a recent Glassdoor report, for example, the company ranked No. 1 nationwide for casual dining concepts in satisfaction and work/life balance. The report also notes First Watch is one of five "triple-threat" brands nationally, with Chick-fil-A, In & Out, Raising Cane’s and Texas Roadhouse, for landing in the top 10 in three critical categories: percentage of employees who would recommend their job to a friend, percentage of employees with a positive business outlook and CEO approval ratings.

Pendery, like Tomasso’s “and then some” mantra, has a philosophy of "You first" — meaning customers and employees come first. That has helped drive the company’s noted culture for decades. But as the company grew rapidly, Pendery and Tomasso began to worry: Will the First Watch entrepreneurial culture fade as it gets bigger?

“We really started to panic that we would not be able to maintain the culture we had,” Tomasso says.

Mark Wemple. Chris Tomasso was named president of Manatee County-based First Watch in 2015. He added CEO to his duties in 2018.
Chris Tomasso says maintaining First Watch's corporate culture is a big priority.

That led to F.A.R.M. More than professional development, the weeklong classes are for managers to learn the First Watch way, from devotion and food safety to managing people and finding a way to say yes on customer requests. Some 250 managers will attend classes there in 2019. Pendery opens each F.A.R.M. session by greeting each manager/classmate and going over the company history. “We believe that instilling a sense of pride in our history is the way to continued success,” the company states in a F.A.R.M blog post. 

Stay strong

Tomasso, meanwhile, personifies the First Watch culture. He’s self-deprecating, easy-going and witty but, several colleagues say, also whip-smart and a dedicated, relentless worker. His career has been an organic rise of seizing opportunities to do more than marketing, not, he says, a master plan to be CEO.   

His leadership style is collaboration. He abhors silos. “I subscribe to the theory that none of us is as strong as all of us,” Tomasso says.

Two newer First Watch executives, general counsel and chief legal officer Jay Wolszczak and senior vice president of technology Rob Conti, both worked with Tomasso at Hard Rock. Both say Tomasso is never about credit, always about accomplishment.

The white boards in Conti’s office are both a long to-do list and an ode to his friend and boss. In the top right corner of one board, for example, Conti hand-wrote two directives — “Make him happy, and make him love IT,” it states — with an arrow pointing to a cutout of Tomasso’s face.

Although the board is part in jest, Conti realizes IT is not always customer-facing, and not all hospitality companies make the investment First Watch has in technology. He says Tomasso gives him the freedom to work solutions while also being a sound voice of counsel. “What sets him apart is his personal touch,” Conti says. “He’s also very smart. He can go toe to toe with anybody on analytics.”

Wolszczak, like Conti, says he knew Tomasso was going places and “destined to be more than a marketing person.”

Wolszczak says Tomasso can quickly shift from ribbing him in a text about the attorney’s favorite college football team to crafting a specific agenda for a senior manager’s meeting. (Wolszczak is a Florida Gator; Tomasso is a UCF Knight.) “He really has a grasp of operations and can dissect a P&L sheet,” Wolszczak says. “And those are things that can’t all be taught in a textbook. He also has the ability to dissect complex situations and boil them down for anyone.”

One other Tomasso trait? Humility. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a senior level leader or a line cook,” Wolszczak says. “He never has an ego when he’s talking to people.”

Pendery adds that Tomasso lives the You First way, by putting others' needs above his own. "It's not the Chris show," Pendery says. "It's not an ego play."

‘Major expense’

Tomasso’s two biggest keep-him-up-at-night worries are big-picture challenges. One is hiring top people in any First Watch market, where low unemployment rates make finding and retaining people an ongoing puzzle. The company tries to combat that with its culture, pay and robust benefits.

Another anxiety: food safety and food quality. He says it’s a constant challenge to make sure every restaurant is doing the right thing every day. First Watch recently brought in a company that performs random, unannounced food safety/food quality checks to help that cause. “It’s a major expense for us,” Tomasso says. “But we believe [it's] something that’s absolutely critical for us as a company.”

Tomasso, like Pendery, will address new classes at the F.A.R.M. During a Q&A session, Tomasso says someone will inevitably ask, “How do I get your job?” Tomasso, saying he knows the individual restaurant’s success is his success, challenges the manager to come get it. Tomasso says, “I’ll keep your seat warm.”


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